Mary Holland: “Chicago’s Woman Sherlock Holmes”


Mary E. Holland.

Mary E. Holland is a largely forgotten figure today, but she was well known around town in her time, and deserves to re-take her place as a famous part of Chicago history. One of the first female detectives in America, she presented forensic analysis at the  first modern trial in which a man was convicted on fingerprint evidence,  and was assistant editor of Detective magazine. Her real adventures inspired the fictional Madelyn Mack, star of a series of Hugo Weird novels which became a series of silent films.

She even played a role in one of Chicago’s enduring mysteries: The Bate Murder:

The facts of the murder are these: on a cold November morning, 1904, young William Bate was found slumped over the steering wheel of a car out beyond the edge of the suburbs. A bullet hole in his head made the cause of death obvious. His hand was still clutching the gear levers. No one had ever been murdered in an automobile before, which made the story bigger news. Making it bigger news was the fact that there was no clear motive, and the car and driver had been rented by a mysterious figure known only as “Mr. Dove.”

Who was Mr. Dove? Why did he kill Bate? And where was he?

The story was all the papers talked about for a week or two, and in the middle of it the police called upon Mary to investigate. She analyzed the car, the bloodstains, the coat fibers in the seat, and the fingerprints, and determined that Mr. Dove may not have been the killer. There was a third person in the car – her theory was the Dove was the victim, and before dragging Dove’s body away, the killer also murdered Bate to keep him silent. “There exists in the blood stains on the automobile the unmistakable evidence that some person or heavy object has been dragged from the rear seat over the right side of the machine,” she wrote. “This was done when the blood was wet. I cannot be mistaken in this.”  The American was a full-on tabloid in those days, even publishing photos recreating the murder (it was one of those papers that took full advantage of the new ability to use photographs), but, like even the worst of the tabloids, sometimes their intrepid reporters did get some fantastic info, and sometimes they did things like inviting a female detective to weigh in.


Mistress of Mysteries: Three Stories.

At the time of the Bate murder, Mary was helping to educate U.S. authorities in the science of fingerprint analysis, which she’d studied in London.  While not an official member of the Chicago police, she often consulted for them. Testimony she gave about fingerprinting led to the first person hanged for murder based on fingerprint evidence in 1912.

Whether she was right about the third person in the Bate murder is still not known – the mystery was never solved. I’m now working on putting together more of the mystery of her own life; I knew she died around 1915, but I’m not sure what the cause of  death was. And her probate file brings up some NEW mysteries: she’d been divorced from her husband in 1909 (he sued for divorce on the grounds that she’d deserted him for two years), then remarried and divorced again very quickly, and was on good enough terms with her first husband in 1913 that he was a witness when she signed her will.

I had never heard of Holland until I ran across an article she wrote for the Chicago American about her findings from examining the Bate Murder car, but she turned out to be fascinating. In 1913, she even wrote a series of short stories about her adventures under the name “Mistress of Mysteries;” one of them was about the Bate murder. I located some of them and republished a compilation on Amazon for the lowest price they’d let me – they’re delightful cozy city mysteries.  I also included an introduction about her life and a copy of her analysis of the Bate murder car (and priced it as low as Amazon would let me). I feel as though her career as a writer was probably just getting started when she died in 1915.

You can also read some Madelyn Mack stories at  



Murder Castle of HH Holmes Ebook EXPANDED!

Our first ebook, THE MURDER CASTLE OF HH HOLMES, has now been expanded to a FULL LENGTH book. Re-organized with tons of new info, new diagrams, and more to tell a more complete picture of the famous “castle” through eyewitness accounts from people lived and worked in the building. Now over 55,000 words to tell you everything down to the combination to the soundproof vault!

Just 3.99 on Kindle!
Don’t have a kindle? No problem! Get aFREE Kindle App for Your Smartphone, Tablet, or PC!
It includes:
More than three dozen diagrams, drawings and pictures, many seen here for the first time since the 1890s
– A lengthy long-lost interview with Holmes conducted in his jail cell about the castle, his life, and his personal beliefs. Would Holmes prefer hanging or execution? Did he believe in ghosts and the supernatural? Find out here (assuming he was telling the truth!)
– Copies of legal records relating to the “castle.” 
– Dozens of first-hand accounts about life in and around the castle, both during Holmes’ time there and during the 1895 investigation. 
– Detailed information about seldom-heard stories about Holmes, including his near-gunfight with a neighbor, the man who died in the castle drugstore, and many more. 
– In-depth background info, contextual information and analysis about each source, as well as info on the relatives merits of the many Chicago newspapers of the 1890s. 
– Adam’s report on the basement of the post office that stands on a portion of the grounds where the castle once stood.

So, wanna know what’s in the book? Take a look at the table of contents. Each chapter comes with background information and contextual data.

 INTRODUCTION: The Holmes Case
Photo: THE CASTLE, 1895
Drawing:: THE CASTLE, 1895.
Drawing: The Castle in The CHICAGO MAIL
Drawing: Front View from CHICAGO MAIL
Drawing: Castle Image from CHICAGO INTER OCEAN
Drawing: Castle Side view from the CHICAGO TIMES HERALD
Diagram: Second Floor in NY World Diagram:
Second Floors from the TIMES HERALD
Diagram: Second Floor from Chicago Record
Diagram: Second Floor from a 1905 tabloid
Diagram: Third Floor from the TIMES HERALD
Diagram: First Floor
Diagram: Basement from The Inter Ocean
Diagram: Basement from the Times Herald
Diagram: Sectional View of Castle, Times Herald
Basement Excavations Map
Eyewitness Account: E.F. Laughlin
Court Summons
Promissory Note for Castle Startup Funds
Eyewitness Account: Fitzallen Woodbury and Benjamin Nixon on a known Death in the Castle Eyewitness: EC Davis
Eyewitness: Thomas Levy Tuck
Eyewitness: Mrs. John C
Eyewitness: Ned Conner
Eyewitness: Mrs. Sylvester
Eyewitness: Mrs. Loomis
Eyewitness: Mrs. Beardsley
Eyewitness: George Bowman
1893: The Castle Discovered
Eyewitness: Joe Owens on the 1893 Fire
Holmes and Revolver
The Castle After the Fire
Eyewitness: Mrs Ladd
The Deadly Stove: The Investigation Begins.
Drawing: The Stove
Searching the Basement
The Bloody Rope
The Bloody Garment in the Ground
Eyewitness: Detective Fitzpatrick
Eyewitness: Albert Phillips
Bloody Wrapper in a Barrell
Human Bones in the Basement
Eyewitness Account: Unnamed Furnace Maker (july 23) 1895
Description 2: Designed For Dark Work
Eyewitness: Ned Conner on the Secret Chamber
 Eyewitness: Joe Owens
Eyewitness: Dr. and Mrs. MB Lawrence
Eyewitness: BJ Cigrand
Chief Ross’s Theory on Emeline
Drawing: The False Vault
Jonathan Belknap
Eyewitness: Inspector Fitzpatrick
Eyewitness: Daily News reporter
No Proof of Murder
Jeweler Davis and the Novelist
Jeweler Davis and the Trunk
Eyewitness: Henry Darrow
HH Holmes’ Kite
The Quinlans Confess – Maybe
Facsimile of The Signatures
Overalls and Blood
The Deadly Gas Debunked?
The Chicago Mail Gives Up
Eyewitness: Cora Quinlan
1895 Description: Castle of a Modern Bluebeard
Was the Castle About to be a Museum?
The Castle Burns (Again) 1895:
The Glass Bending Factory
1896: The Castle Torn Down
Holmes Castle Ad
Eyewitness Account: HH Holmes
Attorney Duncombe on Holmes
1896: The Castle on the Day Holmes Was Hanged
1902: Tge Murder Castle is Haunted Castle
Photo: 1902 (with tower)
1903: Another Fire
1937: The Murder Castle Today
Castle Photo: 1937
1938: Castle Will be Razed
Castle Site Today
Full List of Evidence Found

Just 3.99 on Kindle!
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Johann Hoch and HH Holmes: Partners in Crime?

It’s kind of a disturbing thing to have  “favorite serial killer” at all, but mine is probably Johann Hoch, the goofball who spoke like a German dialect comic, looked like the dude on the Pringles can, and had already a proposed to what may have been his 55th wife when they caught him.  Wife #53 was a Chicago woman who ran a candy shop near Halsted and Willow; he had slipped her some arsenic shortly after the wedding, thrown a big pity party for himself while she lay in agony, and then proposed to her sister while the coffin was still in the room. HE married the sister a day or two later, then took her money and ran.

     “All the women for Johann go crazy, ja?” We went to Hoch’s burial place on our latest podcast.

When he was caught and brought back to Chicago, the Chicago American started spreading all sorts of rumors about him, like one that he was a twin brother of Louis Thombs, a guy who had been hanged a couple of years before, and that he had enchanted women by playing a magic zither of some sort. 
But one charge seemed to stick: that Hoch had once been an apprentice or pupil of H.H. Holmes, and had worked at the famous “murder castle.” 
The American was famous for making up stories to sell papers (it was owned by William Randolph Hearst), but one by one, people who had lived in the castle lined up to identify Hoch. There were some holdouts, like EC Davis, the jeweler, who was generally known to tell it like it is; he said that he’d never seen Hoch in his life. But other residents swore that Hoch had lived at the castle and collected their rent under the name Jake Hecht.
In Richard Lindberg’s recent book on Hoch, he speculates that, while the police didn’t believe Hoch had been in the country until 1895, by which time Holmes was in jail, he had deluded the police with a web of lies, and had, in fact, been a worker at the castle. I’m a bit of a doubter. Davis the Jeweler was generally one of the more reliable witnesses in the crowd (though that isn’t saying much). They also brought in M.G. Chappell, the skeleton articulator, to identify Hoch. He identified him, but he was not exactly a reliable source. No one from the castle had ever seen Chappell when he came there to talk to police in the first place, and most of what he told them was quickly dismissed; Chappell’s family said he was a drunk who was given to making up wild stories. I’ve always thought that the Holmes/Hoch thing was just an example of the papers playing “connect the dots” with criminals, which they loved to do in those days.
But in all of the controversy, no one seems to have taken any notice of one of the murders Holmes talked of in his 1896 “Confession.”
The “confession” itself was sort of a joke; of the 27 murders he confessed to, at least three were of people who weren’t dead yet. Several more were people who may never have existed, or had already been shown to have died of some other cause.  But there were a couple where he didn’t give names, and were therefore hard to refute.
One of these he blamed on a castle “tenant.” The man had grown tired of his wife and had his eye on a wealthy widow, whom Holmes suggested they kill. The man had balked, but took Holmes suggestion to come live at the castle with the widow, and that they’d kill her if life with her became intolerable. This happened in due time, and Holmes had killed the woman with chloroform (his preferred method, really) while the man held her down. This, according to Holmes, started the man off on a life of crime.
Leaving one’s wife to marry and kill a wealthy widow sounds like Hoch to a T.
Of particular note here is that that particular part of the confession is different in the two versions of the confession Holmes wrote. He wrote one, the best known, for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and then seems to have immediately copied down another version for the New York Journal, both of which printed hand-written notes in which Holmes said that what they were printing was his real – and only – confession. The two are mostly the same, except that the Journal version (which was the version published in Chicago papers) leaves six of the stories out, and is missing a word or sentence here and there from other sections. There’s only one section in which the Journal version is longer than the Inquirer, and that’s the story of the man in the castle who killed the wealthy widow.
Get the whole confession, with detailed notes on how the two versions differ (as well as the mysterious version published in another paper the day before, which is the source of the famous “I was born with the devil in me” quote) and over 20k words of analysis on whether he was telling the truth in each section in our new “Confession of HH Holmes ebook!”


Did the murderous H.H. Holmes put a curse on all those present at his trial? And did so many of them die that some believed Holmes was taking revenge from beyond the grave? Stories of Holmes and his “Evil Eye” have been circulating since before his execution in 1896. In the twenty years after that, around 30 people were listed as victims of the “curse.” Here, for the first time, is the surprising truth – a comprehensive list of supposed victims and their stories, all taken from contemporary sources. Though author Adam Selzer, (Your Neighborhood Gives Me the Creeps, Llewellyn 2009 and the Chicago Unbelievable blog) believes some of the stories were hearsay, some of the evidence is truly shocking. This 17,000 word mini-ebook contains 24 illustrations, including the death certificates of Holmes and several of the curse victims, as well as an active table of contents. Also included is the mysterious 2000 word “missing confession” from the Philadelphia North American.

Here we go again…H.H. Holmes Goes to College!

Well, it’s been a while – we’ve been busy working on a new series of Smart Aleck’s Guides and preparing for the November release of a couple of novels around here. But Halloween is coming, and our Smart Aleck’s Guide to Grave Robbing E-book is coming very soon, so….why not talk about H.H. Holmes?

Holmes was, in fact, a doctor. I have some difficulty believing some of the stories that go around about him having a rack in his basement that he planned to use to create a race of giants – no man with medical training, even 19th century medical training, would have been that foolish.

In fact, a great many of the stories about Holmes that are a part of the story today can be traced to crazy gossip from neighbors of his from the 1890s, many of whom were clearly just coming up with stories to get their names in the paper. It seems that everyone who had ever passed Holmes on the street had exaggerated the story in their mind to one in which they narrowly avoided being murdered and sold to a skeleton articulator. The exact number of victims he had will never be known, but I fully expect to hear someone say “500” this year. It was at 400 last year, and the number seems to go up by another 100 every Halloween. A few years back, when I first started working on the story, the “high” estimate was usually 200.

But let’s look at one theory that doesn’t get kicked around much – why did the New England-born Holmes (or, more properly, Herman W. Mudget), choose to go to college at the University of Michigan?

Do enough research on 19th century crime, and you start to get a pretty good idea. Throughout the 1870s, when the young man would have been thinking about where he ought to go to college, the University of Michigan was a notorious hub for body snatchers who sold fresh corpses to medical schools. All medical schools needed bodies, and most were caught dealing with “resurrection men” at one time or another, but the University of Michigan was written up in the media time and time again. When laws changed in Chicago to provide corpses to the local schools, grave robbers simply began shipping Chicago corpses to Ann Arbor.

It’s very easy to imagine that young Holmes had read about the practice, and conceived of the University of Michigan as a place where he could be sure to have access to plenty of dead bodies, and where he could even pay his tuition by supplying some himself.

Here’s “Holmes” listed as a third year student (giving Michigan as his home state, which was a lie – nearly all of his official records contain a lie or two):

In 1896, around the time of his execution, a former classmate, John Madden, wrote to the Journal of the American Medical Association to say what he remembered:

“He seemed to take a good deal of pleasure in the uncanny things of the dissecting room. One afternoon’s conversation with him I remember distinctly. He talked a great deal about what he had done in the dissecting room with what appeared to me at the time unnecessary gusto, and told me that the professor of anatomy was to permit him to take the body of an infant home with him for dissection during the spring vacation. I asked where he would find a place to carry on his work without offending his neighbors, and he replied with something to the effect that he “would find a place.”

“Holmes would lie when it was to his advantage to do so. One one occasion …it occurred at a final oral examination. The members of the class were called in alphabetical order, and I was surprised to find Mudgett present himself in front of me. I called his attention to the fact that his name came after mine and asked for mine and asked for an explanation. He said that L, mentioning the name of a student, had gone out of town and given him his place. I asked when he saw L, and he said “this morning.” Now, I knew, as a matter of fact, that L had let the city the night before…and had been dismissed from the University in disgrace for attempted cheating….I told him that I knew he was lying and that I would not permit him to go in for his examination ahead of me…..When I came out I found him in tears, relating the matter to a classmate, and he whined that it was a “damn mean trick.”

“While..I can not recall any direct evidence of his fondness for women, on one occasion, he spoke of his wife, and I was surprised to hear that he was married…Turning to the “class prophecy,” which was written at the close of the last year at school, I find that I wrote of Mudgett as follows: “Herman W. Mudgett, unlike George Washington, no widow shall find favor in his eyes. After being charged with innumerable Don Juan escapades for which he is not responsible, he will retire to write a book on the ‘Oppression of Man.’ This book will make women very unpopular.”

Chicago Unbelievable Ebooks Now on Nook

Chicago Unbelievable Presents:
Eyewitness Accounts, Diagrams and Pictures
What was the “Murder Castle” really like? Accounts of eyewitnesses and neighbors collected from the 1890s through its destruction in the 1930s, with photos – many reprinted here for the first time. Our first mini ebook is now just 2.99, with an active table of contents.
True Tales of the Chicago Gallows
(the book so gruesome I wouldn’t
even put my name on it)

Hull House Ghost Pictures

To celebrate the new Ghosts of Hull House ebook that will be released tomorrow, if all goes well, let’s take a look at a few of the more notable Hull House shots I had on my tours over the years. I’ve tried to get in touch with the photographers – if one of these is yours and you want it down, please let me know. I’ve come up with explanations for most of them by now, but I let myself keep wondering about a few. The house HAS been rumored to be haunted for over a century, even if most of the myths are just that.

Watch this space tomorrow for a new podcast on the mythology of Hull House and a link to buy the new Hull House book! It won’t hit itunes until the book is out, but you can preview the podcast right here!

A “Little Girl with a doll” on the stair shot – one of few “stairs” pictures that aren’t reflections of ears. It could still be smears, though.

A particularly interesting shot that looks vaguely like a girl in a hoop skirt, photographed from behind. A couple of squiggly lines probably give this away as a weird camera malfunction – but one so weird that it counts as a weird photo all on its own!

Maybe the coolest reflection shot ever. I’ll go ahead and play devil’s advocate by pointing out that while this is fairly obviously a reflection, it doesn’t seem to resemble anyone present when the photo was taken.

Taken, if I remember correctly, by the same woman who took the “hoop skirt” photo, this is probably another example of the “monk ghosts that are really people’s ears” phenomenon.

A shot from the garden. Don’t ask me what this is!

This is the window in which kids often told me that they saw a a woman in a white bonnet. Some claim to see a weird humanesque form behind the curtains (which were moving strangely the night this was taken. They usually just rustle a bit from the vents). I don’t assume that this is really a ghost or anything, but I’m not sure what it is.

As with all “ghost pictures” I put here, I make no claim that any are actually supernatural, even when I can’t explain them myself. There is no such thing as GOOD ghost evidence, only COOL ghost evidence.

The most info ever published on the ghosts and legends of Hull House:

Because You Asked For it: Murder Castle Ebook Now on Kindle!

Things have been quiet on the blog lately, but it’s not because I’ve been lazy! I’m busy with no less than three new Chicago history books!

In the mean time, we’ve ported the Murder Castle Ebook over to Kindle – diagrams, eyewitness accounts, maps, and more! All there is to know about what life was like for the people who lived in worked in H.H. Holmes’ notorious castle!